When I was 14 I got my first job waiting on tables in a hotel in Blackpool. Every morning during the summer holidays I got the 7.16am bus into the town centre, dodged the seagulls pecking away at discarded fish and chip wrappers, and spent my days learning how to balance three full English breakfasts on one arm.
That was 2005, one year after Poland joined the European Union, when people were starting to grumble about the influx of Polish workers who had found jobs in hotels, bars and restaurants in the town.
The hotel I worked in was no exception. In the stuffy basement dining room I met Greg, Maggie and Michael, three Polish workers who, for that summer, made my life so much richer.
While my friends at school drank cider on the park, Maggie, Greg and Michael drank Zubrowka vodka and apple juice on their nights off. It would be another 10 years or so before I saw Zubrowka on supermarket shelves in the UK, and
that familiar bison on the bottle took me back to those long, hot summer days, when Maggie, Michael, Greg and me would wipe tables, scrape baked beans off plates, and refill tiny pots of jam.
We laughed until we cried one day when Greg, who had basic English skills, mixed up the starters on the menu. The options that day (and most days) were tuna mayonnaise salad, or leek and potato soup. We watched as poor Greg quietly recited the options over and over again before standing at the end of tables in the hotel dining room, offering confused guests a bizarre choice of leek and potato salad, or tuna mayonnaise soup.
Greg would have scored zero on home secretary Priti Patel’s new points-based immigration system, but it really didn’t matter. We worked in a cheap hotel in a seaside resort, where chips were served with every meal and diners had the option of steak pie or fish and chips most days.
As an impressionable teenager I loved hearing from these mature twenty-somethings about their lives in Poland, about how they fasted on Christmas Eve morning and then feasted on carp in the evening.
I started drinking black tea with a slice of lemon like Maggie, an engineering graduate. She would bring a whole lemon to work every day and cut it into slices for us to share, adding honey to the tea to make it sweeter. Sometimes Maggie baked traditional Polish apple pie and brought it into work – other times she ate herrings in oil.
I don’t know what happened to Maggie, Greg and Michael, but I remember that summer, when I started to learn about the world. I didn’t grow up in a city where diverse communities lived side by side. I didn’t have friends who spoke different languages at home. I didn’t know anyone who drank black tea or ate herrings.
Under Patel’s new immigration laws, I wouldn’t have met Maggie, Greg and Michael, or dozens of friends I’ve worked with since, some of whom have worked their way up in the hospitality industry and are now restaurant managers.
Patel is promising to fill those jobs with English workers but, in all honesty, I’ve never met an English worker in a “low skilled” job who is willing to stay behind an extra hour to stack chairs, or start an hour earlier in the morning to clean the coffee machine. When it comes to our new pig-headed immigration laws, it really is our loss.